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Over the past few weeks, security videos out of Oakland, California, have been getting attention. They show sudden, brutal attacks on elderly Asian people in the city’s Chinatown that seem to come out of nowhere. You’ll find similar stories from over the past year. There’s one about a family who was out at a restaurant for July 4, when they were suddenly targeted for a racist rant by a tech CEO. There’s another about an Asian man attacked while collecting cans in San Francisco. And then there was the 89-year-old Chinese woman who was set on fire a few months ago in Brooklyn, New York. Many people trace these attacks back to the spread of the coronavirus and the racist ways then-President Donald Trump referred to COVID-19. But Kim Tran, a Vietnamese American Oakland native, historian, and “anti-oppression consultant,” says that the agitation that seems to be manifesting right now has been hiding in plain sight for years. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Tran about the continued rise in anti-Asian violence. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kim Tran: Last year, the New York Police Department found a 1,900 percent increase in anti-Asian violence over the course of 2020.
Mary Harris: Do you feel it when you’re out and about?
Yeah. About a year ago I was walking my dog, which I do every day, and I noticed that a couple of young white women would close their jackets and move very rapidly away from me, like this very obvious and strong aversion to my presence. That is a brand-new experience for me, it’s really jarring, and unfortunately I think it’s becoming a lot more frequent for people in my life as well.
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When was the first attack on an Asian American in the spring that stood out to you and made you think this could be something bigger?
In March of 2020, there was a Burmese family in a Sam’s Club in Texas who were stabbed: a 2-year-old, a 6-year-old, and their parent, and it was specifically racially motivated. There was a Border Patrol agent nearby who found was that this person was attacking this family based on what they look like, based on the language around the coronavirus that was happening. That’s the moment I started to really get worried. Because it’s one thing for me to walk down the street and see a white woman clutch her pearls and jacket closer in worry that I’m spreading disease and pestilence. There’s a very specific line that gets crossed when we start seeing bloodshed and violence. That’s the part where it gets really scary.
I think when we’re looking at a rise in anti-Asian sentiment, anti-Asian violence, what we’re seeing is actually really familiar tropes. A lot of folks thought what Donald Trump was doing was new, but it’s not.
How did the year play out for you after learning about what happened at Sam’s Club?
Really, the thing that’s been different for me is the way I engage with my family.
My mom is almost 70. She’s in one of these places where this anti-Asian violence has been concentrated, especially over the Lunar New Year. There was a woman who was attacked coming out of an ATM in downtown San Jose, and I found out a couple of weeks ago that a family friend had actually been the victim of such violence, so one of big shifts has been a tremendous amount of concern for a lot of the elders in my family. I found out recently that my mom has just stopped going to ATMs. That’s something I’m thinking about a lot right now. There are these little things that we do slightly differently because we’re worried about this in our everyday lives. Like, do you walk your dog and at what time? When you go to the store, do you make sure that you smile or wave at folks?
Andrew Yang wrote this really questionable article in the Washington Post when this kicked off—he basically said be more American. I think Asian Americans are always asking themselves, how can I be more American to be more palatable to folks? And there are certain ways that that’s just impossible. Low-income Chinatowns and Little Saigons are good examples of ways in which we can’t be more American, because we live at higher rates of poverty, because we speak different languages than English. We’re trying to mediate those effects all the time.
When I was looking into the 1982 story of Vincent Chin, whose killers were not punished—the story got national attention and all sorts of things were done, but in the end nothing really changed. There were fines imposed, but at least one of the men didn’t pay them. I wonder, when you think about that story now, how do you think it relates to what you’re seeing now? Because there’s a similar stew of emotions going on, right?
I don’t know that we can ever resolve things like when folks get murdered out of racial animus or when people of color are brutalized by police—I kind of put these under the same umbrella. Ten years later, you have Rodney King in Los Angeles, and that likewise wasn’t resolved to an extent where anyone felt that any kind of justice had been served.
The reason we’re not going to ever experience kind of the national sense of closure or restitution or resolution that we want or need is because we haven’t actually gotten to the root causes of what’s happening. You can’t actually blame people of color for economic instability. There are a number of studies that debunk that, but it is really easy to still buy into it.
These acts of violence become a lot more complicated when you think about the motivations of the perpetrators.
This is a twofold problem. Chinatown is a place of economic precarity. At least in Oakland’s Chinatown, 30 percent of all folks live below the poverty line. What we do know is that there are multiple levels of vulnerability that people are experiencing.
As someone who is thinking about Asian America and about what pushing back against white supremacy actually looks like, I locate this as a root issue. The antagonism and violence that we’re seeing against Asian Americans is indicative of a greater thing: the fact that we, plain and simple, don’t have a lot of mechanisms in place to help people and communities of color thrive.
There has been no substantive federal economic response to the kinds of displacement and unemployment and despair that a lot of communities of color are experiencing. So I look at this as, if people are pushed to the brink of subsistence. of survival, they’re going to find ways to steal money from an elder in a Chinatown or a Little Saigon somewhere.
Do you think the wave of violence that we’re seeing now is getting the right amount of attention from mainstream media?
Short answer, no. We don’t cover race in America well—we cover it as a binary. There’s the racialization process for Asian Americans, for Latino folks, for Indigenous folks. There are a number of reasons why I think we’re not talking about what happens for Asian Americans, because we do want a poor job of casting the net wide, and I think there is an investment in America that Asian Americans are a “model minority.” We’re not quite to the kind of sociocultural place that white folks hold, but we’re not where Black Americans are. So we do a really poor job of actually talking about what race is in relationship to various different communities of color.
What would it look like to discuss this better?
I think we have to do a better job, quite honestly, of talking about not just race but also class. Asian Americans have the greatest economic wealth disparity gap of any racial group. We have to do a better job of actually talking about those differences. We’re doing a lot of flattening right now, that this is what it’s like to be Asian American. Well, there are a lot of us. We’re a huge racial group. And I think if we did a better job of talking about nuances of race in America for different communities, even within their racial groups, we could have a much more substantive conversation about what it means to actually resist racism.
Many of the crimes over the past year perpetrated against Asians were carried out by other people of color. Does that make it harder to talk about what’s happening?
White supremacy and racism are a toxic stew in which we all live. We’re going to soak up and reflect and refract those ideas regardless of what bodies we live in, regardless of who we are. That’s the unfortunate reality. It doesn’t break down cleanly.
Joe Biden is in office now, and he released an executive order condemning anti-Asian discrimination, which is really just the beginning. I wonder if you worry that, for other people, this seems like the end, that we addressed this, we’re moving on.
An executive order is going to mean very little very quickly. We need to roll out support in Chinatowns. We need to roll out affordable housing in California. We need health care, and we need mental health resources. It sounds a little bit like a platitude to say we condemn anti-Asian violence. Cool, that’s great. Now, what does that look like on a structural level?
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